I’ve been working in earnest on Chester Himes’s 1945 novel If He Hollers Let Him Go over the last few weeks. His first published novel, If He Hollers… is set in WWII Los Angeles, and it focuses on Bob Jones, a black shipyard worker at the fictional Atlas Shipping. We follow Bob over several days as he experiences the complicated racial politics of wartime LA, and specifically the downward spiral of consequences that flow from him talking back to a southern white female colleague who abusively refuses to work alongside him.
In a sense my entire thesis is an explication of a single passage, one of the most striking, in Kevin Lynch’s classic 1960 work of urban planning theory, The Image of the City:
To become completely lost is perhaps a rather rare experience for most people in the modern city. […] But let the mishap of disorientation once occur, and the sense of anxiety and even terror that accompanies it reveals to us how closely it is linked to our sense of balance and well-being. The very word “lost” in our language means much more than simple geographical uncertainty; it carries overtones of utter disaster. (p. 4)
The primary concern of Lynch’s work was city design – with how we might build or remodel cities to be highly legible, thereby minimising their tendency to disorientate residents and making them more pleasant, satisfying places in which to live. His evocative descriptions of the trauma of urban disorientation are the point of departure for my own analysis of Los Angeles fiction and cinema.
Edmund Wilson (1895-1972), was a literary critic and essayist who wrote for Vanity Fair, the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. Wilson made a few contributions to Southern California literary history — as well as editing his university friend F. Scott Fitzgerald’s posthumously published and incomplete Hollywood novel The Last Tycoon, his essay ‘The Boys in the Back Room’ (1941) was a significant early discussion of expatriate California novelists like James M. Cain and Horace McCoy.
It’s the nature of academic publishing that after working on something a year ago that briefly took up all of my attention, I almost didn’t notice a couple of months ago when the article was actually published. But since this is officially My First Academic Publication, it’s probably worth acknowledging the milestone. (And of course although I’m being mildly flippant, I’m also quietly proud of what it represents.) Continue reading →
It’s becoming clear that one of the central themes of my next thesis chapter will be mobility — or more specifically, the restrictions imposed on the mobility of black Angelenos, and the representation of this immobility in works of fiction and cinema spanning the post-war / mid-century / civil rights eras.
Approaching the end of a summer in which for various reasons I’ve been unable to concentrate on my thesis to the degree I would have liked, I’m excited to be getting back to things tomorrow, and in particular, resuming my research into South (Central) LA.
I thought I’d mark the occasion with a line I encountered during a recent re-reading of Chandler’s The Long Good-bye; it’s an apt epigraph for my thesis, and a good reminder to keep myself grounded in the material, the geographical and the historical, during the moments I’m tempted to fly a little too far into the conceptual.
No matter how smart you think you are, you have to have a place to start from; a name, an address, a neighbourhood, a background, an atmosphere, a point of reference of some sort.
When I saw James Ellroy read from his most recent novel Perfidia at the London Review Bookshop late last year (during which he signed my hardback copy with the helpful admonition ‘Alex – Finish ‘yo thesis!‘), he ended the Q&A session by reciting a Dylan Thomas poem. The recital was in response to a question posed by Ellroy himself – in other words, he wanted an excuse to recite it, and nobody had asked the question to which he had prepared it as an answer, that question being, ‘Why do you write?’. Continue reading →
Something shorter and a little more visual, after a rather text-heavy last post. I’ve spent some time working my way through various online photographic archives for relevant material to supplement my research, or illustrate conference papers.
Results have been mixed so far; there is a particular lack of material on mid-century South LA, which other sources had prepared me for but which I was hoping had improved in recent years. But I’ve turned up a few interesting or odd ones, two of which are below, and taken from the Los Angeles Examiner Collection at the USC Digital Library.
My PhD thesis analyses the experience of the city of Los Angeles as represented in literature and film across the 20th century, focusing particularly on states of disorientation. I will address the question ‘Why Los Angeles?’ in a subsequent post, and will also expand on how disorientation is actually utilised in my analysis; for now, I want to unpack the term a little by sketching a brief conceptual history. What I’m particularly concerned with doing is demonstrating that disorientation is more than merely a synonym for ‘lost’, and how its meaning came to implicate not just the spatial/geographical, but also disruptions to time and identity.
I’ve been toying for a little while with the idea that James Ellroy’s historical fiction might be profitably read as genealogical fiction. I haven’t had the chance to develop this reading properly, as it’s outside the scope of my thesis work so anything longer than a blog post probably counts as procrastination for now.